On their last full-length, The Growlers sang about far-off dreams, a magical someday “when tall-boys turn into champagne, when bologna turns into steak.”
Since then, they’ve been displaced by a fire that tore through their Costa Mesa, Calif. studio, yet there’s an easygoing vibe across Chinese Fountain that suggests they’re nearly finished turning those tall-boys into the bubbly good stuff.
A polish and focus defines the still-hard-to-pinpoint Growlers’ sound, and everything from disco-punk to reggae-flavored songs land with both force and melodic buoyancy.
The band’s stylistic versatility also works best in this consolidated presentation, 11 songs over 40 minutes. Hung At Heart, The Growlers’ last LP and previous best work, had plenty of brilliant moments, but at 15 songs could grow into a bit of a weary listen.
The songwriting core of vocalist Brooks Nielsen and guitarist Matt Taylor have turned eight years as bandmates into an effortless well of songs, while Scott Montoya (drums), Anthony Perry (bass) and Kyle Stratka (keyboards, guitar) give the songs all the right flourishes.
“Big Toe” leads off, with choppy guitar chords and sinewy bassline, while Nielsen tells the story of falling for a woman “who strikes down like a hammer on your big toe.”
“Black Memories” shows The Growlers’ skill at leveraging tension from contrasts—the darker Nielsen’s lyrics, the more hazily blissful the music gets.
On “Chinese Fountain,” The Growlers play the role of unlikely prophets, with Nielsen unleashing a torrent of generational angst against the backdrop of a bold, disco-punk tune. Alongside the propulsive dance beat of a decidedly pre-millennial sound, Nielsen decries technological obsessions that dominate this era. “The Internet is bigger than Jesus and John Lennon,” he sings, and if the message from Timothy Leary 50 years ago was to tune in, The Growlers are now urging their fellow weirdos to tune out.
Up next is “Dull Boy,” which blends a light reggae beat with the detached cool of indie rockers like Luna. Nielsen again sings against the modern traps he sees: kids lost in malls, living on capsules, with nothing to distract them but dead dreams. It’s a song, like “Chinese Fountain” about “pulling out while there’s still time.”
“Going Gets Tuff” uses a jaunty island ska beat to frame Neilsen’s honest and earnest lyrics about money woes and the struggles of living out on the road. “I refuse to accept that my work is all in vain,” he sings, before getting to the uplifting chorus: “Still always remembering when the going gets tough, that the labor of our love will reward us soon enough.”
Sometimes in the past, The Growlers’ recordings felt almost like a psychedelic circus filled with nothing but fun-house mirrors. Chinese Fountain, while remaining true to the band’s “beach goth” essence, is blessedly direct, with sharper songwriting and engaging melodies at the center of every song.